"I want to live up here! It's gonna be fun!"
Four-year-old Ranyah couldn't control her joy, smiling broadly as she swung on the swing set in the yard of her new home in the Ivanhoe Neighborhood of Kansas City -- her family's first permanent home in years. Ranyah's grandparents, James Ponder and Pamela St. John, had just received the keys to the home at a ceremony making the culmination of Jackson County’s sixth Constructing Futures project. They'll live there with Ranyah and their two sons, ages 9 and 15.
"This program is all about changing lives, and so many lives are touched by this one home," Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders told a crowd gathered at the Nutter Ivanhoe Neighborhood Center just before handing over the keys. "Home for the holidays takes on a whole new meaning on a day like this."
County Executive Sanders explained that Constructing Futures was conceived seven years ago to address the issue of homelessness, to transform vacant homes into owner-occupied dwellings and thus reduce their blighting impact, and to provide training and ultimately jobs to former inmates. The Ponder-St. John family fit the criteria for the program, having lived at the reStart homeless shelter for nearly two years after falling on hard times, then spending almost two years in reStart's transitional housing program before finally renting a home for the past several months.
Ponder has a job with the Missouri Department of Transportation, while St. John now works at Truman Behavioral Health as a Peer Rehabilitation Specialist. Pamela speaks to clients from experience, as both she and James struggled with substance abuse -- he was even incarcerated for a time -- before getting clean. They were the first runner-up for a Constructing Futures home last year, and they did not realize they had been chosen to receive the newly rehabbed home until the moment Sanders handed them the keys.
A crowd made up of county officials and private-sector and social-service agency supporters applauded them as members of the media looked on.
"It’s so awesome," St. John said. "It was a little heart-breaking last year, but I told myself that whatever God chose for me will be what will happen, so when I found out we were finalists again this year, I gave it to God then, too."
"We've come a long way," Ponder said. "We've had a lot of problems in our lives, but now we are both gainfully employed. … It's a blessing."
The house the family received was donated by Habitat for Humanity Kansas City. It had been built years ago, but was abandoned before being stripped and falling into disrepair. Using funds from its Housing Resource Commission and COMBAT Anti-Drug Tax, the county made the house like new again, with the help of workers provided by Connections to Success and supplies, including appliances, donated by private partners such as Meyers Brothers Building Co., Clean Energy and Home Depot.
The law firm Lathrop & Gage made a monetary donation, while Operation Breakthrough provided presents to place beneath the Christmas tree in the living room. Jackson County Parks + Rec crews did the landscaping. Morgan Jacobs General Contracting has worked with Constructing Futures on the past several homes. In cooperation with the non-profit agency Connections to Success, it employs ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society and passed background checks, paying them to work while training them in skills like brick laying, concrete pouring and carpentry.
Brad Lambert, co-founder and chief operations officer of Connections to Success, said each of the half-dozen or so workers who worked on this year's home is either already employed full time or soon will be. A couple of the workers attended the ceremony.
"I encourage them to come and see the emotional impact on the family," Lambert said. "It's important for them, as well, to see what they have helped to do."
Margaret May, executive director of the Ivanhoe Neighborhood Council, said Constructing Futures has had "a tremendous positive impact." "The neighborhood wins, the homeowners win and the people who don't have job skills win," she said. "When people have job skills, they don't go back to prison. We're happy to have this partnership with Jackson County and to be part of it."